Long before the official announcement in late 2017 that the 30-year ban on cinemas in Saudi Arabia would be lifted, gossip was widespread across the kingdom that the news was coming.
“There was a rumor going around that there were already theaters in malls, and they just pulled back the curtain and said, ‘Tada, cinemas!’” says Alaa Fadan. As Ibraheem Al Khairallah recalls: “I remember looking around and thinking, ‘Is that the corner of a cinema?’”
But Fadan and Al Khairallah weren’t just Saudi film fans waiting anxiously. As co-founders of the groundbreaking Riyadh-based content studio Telfaz11, along with fellow multi-hyphenate Ali Kalthami, they had spent years carefully preparing themselves and their company, which started out creating online videos, to take full advantage when the historic news would occur. country. As Fadan notes, “We were ready – everything we had done was about preparing for feature filmmaking.”
Less than six years after the announcement and Saudi Arabia is the fastest growing box office in the world. And Telfaz11 leads the country’s electrifying cinematic charge, filling theaters, destroying records and beating Hollywood studios in the process. In early 2023, the first feature film to hit Saudi cinemas, Sattar – an action comedy in which a depressed man becomes a freestyle wrestler and the brainchild of Al Khairallah – beat Avatar: The Way of Water from the top spot to become the first within two weeks the most successful local film of all time. Despite all the Barbenheimer hype, Sattar received more visitors (903,000) than either Barbie (343,000) and Oppenheimer (679,000), although thanks to Imax Oppenheimer has now overtaken it in terms of box office ($11.6 million to Sattar’s $10.8 million).
Telfaz11 is now preparing for its first major festival splash, with two feature films in Toronto. Nagawhich follows in the same comedic footsteps as Sattar with a story about a Saudi girl stranded in the sand dunes alongside, among other things, a vengeful camel, is part of an eight-feature deal signed with Netflix in 2020. Mandoob (Night Courier) is something different: set in the rarely seen world of Saudi nightlife, it follows a down-on-his-luck courier who descends into the world of alcohol smuggling. Mandoob also marks the feature debut of Kalthami (whose 2016 short Wasati won numerous international awards) and takes Telfaz11 into more dramatic territory.
It’s all part of an ongoing and carefully orchestrated strategy that has been the hallmark of the company almost from its inception, when Fahad and Kalthami first met in the late 2000s, delved into DSLR cameras and (eventually) their jobs canceled.
It would take several more years for Saudi Arabia to open up, with most forms of entertainment remaining underground, but the two sensed the incredible amount of pent-up creative energy – supported by a young and highly digitalized population – ready to be unleashed. They wanted, says Fadan, to be a “catalyst for this great environment.”
Their focus sharpened when Al Khairallah – already part of Saudi Arabia’s emerging stand-up scene – joined them. Al Khairallah – who would become better known for his comedic character the Fat Khairo – had broken new ground as the first Saudi comedian to shift his act from English, which was the de facto language, to Arabic. Kalthami was in the audience when it happened. “He said, we all speak Arabic here, don’t we, do you mind if I tell this joke in Arabic? And he absolutely killed it.
And so the three worked together, having concluded that what was needed was this authentic voice, a voice that embraced the local culture, in its native language, and spoke to their generation in a way no one had before. “We knew we were on to something,” says Fadan. He was right.
One of their early creations, the sketch show La Jekthar – which started in 2010 and mocked Saudi society and socio-politics – quickly racked up millions of views. Initially it was hosted on their own website, which eventually crashed under the weight of traffic every time they released a new episode, forcing them to set aside money for more bandwidth. So they posted it on YouTube and became YouTube stars before the term had even become commonplace.
La Jekthar would spawn several equally successful spin-offs (one based solely on a glove puppet alligator), flexing both their own creative muscles (Faden produced initially, with Al Khairallah and Kalthami writing, directing and acting) alongside a pool of Saudi talent, many of whom are now helping to shape the country’s emerging film and TV industry.
Very early on, a conscious decision was made to organize itself professionally as a company, one of the first in a creative economy that literally did not exist at the time. “We’ve seen a lot of content creators come and go, but they just didn’t have the right plan,” says Fadan. “As soon as we saw some revenue coming our way, we thought, OK, this has to be strategic.” The company was first registered as C3 – which stands for Creative Culture Catalyst – with Telfaz11 as the commercial brand (and the name of the YouTube channel), but as time went on everything fell under that umbrella.
While their highly viral content – including 2013’s global breakthrough No woman, no ride video, made by comedian and former Telfaz11 member Hisham Fageeh – would see them labeled as YouTubers, their relationship with the internet was “purely out of necessity,” Kalthami emphasizes. “We didn’t have a cinema, we didn’t have the resources to make TV… the choice to produce digitally was out of sheer necessity,” he notes. “But we’ve always considered ourselves filmmakers.”
Fast forward ten years, and with a growing number of features there is absolutely no doubt about Telfaz11’s film credentials. The company – which secured millions of dollars in funding from a consortium of local financiers (including cinema chain Muvi) in 2021 – now has offices in Riyadh and Dubai, with around 50 employees, plus another 60 to 70 from Shift, the regional creative agency. it was acquired earlier this year (Fadan says their online popularity soon led to brands reaching out to capitalize on their creativity).
Telfaz11’s entry into full-fledged filmmaking could of course have happened earlier. But again, it was all about being strategic.
The idea for their record-breaking Sattar was actually created long before theaters opened, but – realizing it was a story best told on the big screen – Al Khairallah parked it until the time was right. And even when the first cinemas opened their doors in 2018, there was no race; they wanted to wait until the number of theaters across the country had reached a critical mass and, as Al Khairallah notes, “the right number of cinemas had built up confidence in films.”
They also wanted to study this emerging box office to see what was going on. Launch Sattar on Avatar2The film’s third week was not something they feared as science fiction and animation generally failed to perform and the major studio marquees tended to drop off significantly after their first weekend. They also knew that Egyptian films – which had done very well – and other Hollywood titles would stay far away from James Cameron’s epic sequel. “So it was all about waiting, seeing the market, seeing how it goes.”
The trio now waits and watches the market for their upcoming releases, with the TIFF bow Mandoob part of a plan to move away from their comedic origins into other genres, hopefully attracting an even wider audience.
Al Khairallah points this out Top Gun Maverick is currently the highest-grossing film of all time in Saudi Arabia, with 1.2 million admissions (and a box office gross of approximately $22.3 million). ‘But how big is the population of Saudi Arabia? There are more than 30 million,” he says. “So where are the other 29 million? Maybe they’re waiting for a horror, maybe they’re waiting for a drama. I don’t know, but we have to open these boxes.’
Whatever box they open, it will undoubtedly be done in a carefully considered and timely manner, a tactic that has served Telfaz11 exceptionally well so far.
As Fadan notes, “We can’t claim to have had the first Saudi film in cinemas, but we can claim to have had the most successful.”
A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.